By Emma Waverman and Eshun Mott

This article should come with a warning for hot sauce lovers: Tunisian cuisine is very addictive on its own, but combine it with harissa and you may never be able to eat anything else.

Tunisian cuisine uses harissa in everything from stews and soups to couscous (including the distinctive red-hot Tunisian couscous, featured here), where the fiery sauce elevates the often-bland grain from a supporting role to co-star with the savoury vegetables.

Harissa—found in the cooking of Libya, Morocco and especially Tunisia—comes from the Arabic word meaning “to break into pieces,” which is precisely what North African women do. Traditionally made with mortar and pestle, harissa is a mix of chilies, cumin, coriander and, often, tomatoes that are blended into a smooth hot sauce. Some variations call for mint, preserved lemon and even rose petals—all flavourings that bestow subtle differences to the sauce.

Harissa can be found in tubes and cans in some supermarkets and Middle Eastern grocers that specialize in Tunisian cuisine, but we encourage you to make your own (a food processor will speed up the grinding). It will keep for months properly covered in the refrigerator.If you find yourself developing a harissa habit, there are many recipes online and in Middle Eastern cookbooks that will give you a basis for creating your own blend. But watch out, harissa is desperately hot (especially the Tunisian varieties) and should be used in small amounts. Proceed with caution!

Tunisian Vegetable Couscous

This couscous is very flavourful and delicious served either warm or at room temperature. It travels well and would make perfect picnic fare. Serve it on its own or alongside grilled chicken or beef. Adjust the amount of harissa in the dressing to suit your tolerance for spice.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • 2 cups diced zucchini
  • 2 tsp chopped garlic
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 19-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed well
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
  • 1-3/4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 cup quick-cooking couscous


  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp harissa (or to taste)
  • 1 tsp liquid honey
  • Salt to taste


  1. Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté for 4 minutes or until softened and lightly browned. Add zucchini and sauté for 1 minute or until just beginning to soften. Add garlic, cumin, coriander and sauté for 1 minute or until fragrant. Add chickpeas and sauté for 1 minute more or until zucchini is tender-crisp and flavours have amalgamated. Season with salt and pepper and transfer vegetable mixture to a bowl. Allow to cool slightly before adding tomatoes, and toss gently to combine. Set aside.
  2. Add stock to frying pan and bring to a boil over high heat, scraping the bottom of the pan to incorporate any spices or browned bits into the stock. Sprinkle couscous into boiling stock and remove pan from heat. Allow couscous to stand for 5 minutes to absorb liquid.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together lime juice, olive oil, harissa and honey, and season with salt. Drizzle dressing over couscous in pan, and stir with a fork to fluff grains and incorporate dressing.
  4. Spoon couscous onto a serving plate and top with vegetable mixture and any juices that have accumulated in the bowl.

Emma Waverman and Eshun Mott are longtime food writers and recipe developers who penned a column for Outpost magazine, and co-authored the family cookbook Whining and Dining: Mealtime Survival for Picky Eaters and Families Who Love Them. You can find Emma regularly at Here and Now on CBC Radio One.

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